I remember with both pleasure and regret the days of Ultima, Asherons Call and recently EVE Online, where the sandbox gameplay exceeded any of my expectations. Especially when compared to theme park MMORPG Games we play today which are highly limited and less impressive as the developers focus on creating lots of cash and pleasing everybody, rather than on creating a good game.
The sandbox niche market is very poor at the moment. The most polished MMO game in this section is EVE Online which, to be honest, has its fair share of flaws. Most of us MMO gamers already played it to death and we are now looking for some new fantasy/sci-fi setting. Our choices are very limited or close to nonexistent because there aren’t many of us out there so there is no chance of making big bucks from creating a game for us. However EVE Online proved during the last 8 years that this idea is not true. Unfortunately big companies still imitate WOW or other well established theme park MMOs and I am not talking about polish, but about gameplay.
In the last years a handful of companies tried to fill this void, one of them being the indie developer Aventurine from Greece. In 2009 they released their flagship product, Darkfall which promised to be the next Ultima Online in terms of gameplay. It was a game we’ve all been waiting for almost a decade. One year after its release I went back to Darkfall to check on his progress and here is what I found.
There are no classes in Darkfall, they are only races and from there you can become anything you want. The skills are improved through their use. If you usually run a lot in your adventures you will improve the speed you run at from level 1 to level 100. The same goes for other activities such as melee fighting and so on. Skills range from melee fighting skills, magic, archery to gathering and crafting. From this you can conclude that you will never know what your opponent wields in power depending on their visual aspect. It doesn’t matter if it wears armor or cloth, or if they have a sword in hand or bow/staff – you’ll have to adapt to each situation.
As a new adventurer in the world of Darkfall you start in one of the outposts owned by your race. Here you will be safe through a 24 hour PvP protection and also you will be guided on your first steps through questing, fighting goblins (ferocious bastards), crafting and gathering.
The combat is similar to Mount and Blade, a third person view with no auto targeting for melee, and first person for magic and archery. It works well and it requires lots of practicing for PVP, but on the other hand it’s easy to master in PvE. Since are no limits at the moment most of the players are hybrids, focused on melee/archery with some magic support (buffs). I have however encountered fully developed and one path focused classes such as powerful mages.
The most important feature, as in any decent sandbox mmorpg, is the full loot in PvP/PvE which scares most of the people. When you die all of the items you have in inventory and those equipped remain with your corpse, and can be retrieved by anybody until you arrive back from the shrine you spawned. This brings into focus the Risk vs Rewards some of us are looking for. Inflicting persistent damage to your enemy, single person or clan, making them feel the economic drawback resulting from your attacks and victories. No more: you just died, respawn with your same epix after 5 seconds of PvP, run back and try again. These days should long behind us as they are so much… “fun”. The Darkfall system gives new meaning to each fight and fills you with a serious dose of adrenaline. Strategy becomes important, planning also, because in the end the winner takes all.
The full PvP loot feature is not as scary as you might think once you realize how the game works. You should only carry what you afford to lose. You want to gather stuff? Wear only what you need. Going hunting? Get your mediocre gear. Participating in a clan battle/raid? Equip the best gear you have and get ready to wreak some havoc.
Most of your time in Darkfall will be spent on leveling your skills, improving your bank storage with new items for when you die, or on planning future clan battles. This can be regarded as some sort of grind, but in a sandbox environment most of the content is what you make of what the game offers you. There are more quests in the game than I expected and some were decent, with good rewards, filling the need for PVE and in the same time helping you get your hands on some money and equipment. The best thing about PVE is that all the monsters that you kill drop lots of loot and almost everything you pick up has a use.
Darkfall is a PvP oriented game overall, but it has enough PvE content together with a huge crafting and resource system to keep the most hardcore PvE-ers happy. When you adventure in the world for the first time what may seem only a basic rock for you is actually a resource node which can be gathered and then used for building cities. The same goes for trees when it comes to wood and bushes for alchemy. 80% of what you see in the environment can be gathered and then crafted into products, ranging from weapons, armors, cities to ships even, like Frigates or Ships of the Lines for sea battles.
While some will say that you require months to be competitive on 1v1, which is mostly true if you want to fight the vets, you can still have a good role as a support in any group right from the start. With the help of a long range weapon, a spell, and by assisting your clan mates with resurrection and heal and so on, you can impact the outcome of a battle. On my first week I was on 2 sieges, 1 city defense and 1 ship to ship fight which was absolutely incredible. This is a group oriented game since most of the city and hamlets are owned by the players. Alone is pretty hard to survive so join a clan as soon as you get the chance.
On high details the environment graphics are great, with dynamic shadows and incredible landscape points of interest, though it requires a good graphic card. But the game is very scalable so if you are not graphics freak you can play it on almost any computer available in the last 3-4 years. The animations are somewhat mediocre, but after some time you will get used to them. The particles are mediocre at best and so is the lighting system.
Overall if you are looking for an innovative sandbox mmorpg, a little rough around the edges, but with good PvP and incredible freedom, Darkfall is a good bet. Try the trial: you might be surprised and end up never looking at a theme park MMO again.
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